On closing night Fantastic Fest treated attendees to some Bad Times at the El Royale, an almost film-noir by writer/director Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, The Martian).
Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the country shows horror, fantasy, sci-fi, action and unusual films that don’t necessarily fit into any genre. This year it ran Sept 20-27, in Austin, Texas, at the Alamo Drafthouse Theater – South Lamar.
The El Royale, a down on its luck hotel-casino on the California/Nevada border near Reno, becomes the site of intrigue and murder as an unlikely collection of guests drop in. The guests, played by a great cast including Jeff Bridges, Chris Hemsworth, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson and Cynthia Erivo, all have problems to work out.
As with Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods, the setting of the story has an impact on the characters. We see the El Royale in the opening sequences in the 1950s. The story picks up ten years later and the El Royale has lost its gambling license. That can really happen and I’ve seen deserted venues like this. Usually empty, with a one-person staff, it, like the guests that visit, has a secret.
Furthermore it also has the California/Nevada border running through the middle of it. This peculiarity results in some of the lighter moments, there aren’t many, of the film.
Bad Times at the El Royale might be film noir, a genre of film “marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace.” Classics in this genre include The Maltese Falcon and Touch of Evil. The heroes, Sam Spade is the iconic one, usually have a touch of moral ambiguity influencing their decisions. More recent examples include Sin City and Shutter Island.
Most of the characters who end up in the El Royale have morally ambiguous objectives. Others have purely evil ones. Still, there is one, and I won’t spoil it for you, who is basically good. This is why I won’t entirely classify Bad Times at the El Royale as noir. Also, nearly everyone is striving for some kind of moral redemption, which gives it a non-noir hopefulness.
Jeff Bridges plays Father Daniel Flynn, the character who makes things happen. You wouldn’t call him the hero or protagonist, as this is more of an ensemble style story. Bridges does an amazing job as always bringing a quirky character to believable life.
While at the El Royale, Father Flynn encounters down-on-her-luck R&B singer Darlene Sweet, played by Cynthia Erivo, and the sisters Summerspring, played by Dakota Johnson and Cailee Spaeny. The sisters have complicated issues going back to childhood. Not the least of these issues is Billy Lee.
Billy Lee, played frighteningly by Chris Hemsworth, is a charismatic cult leader. He comes across as an exploitative, vindictive type, something like Charles Manson. But, Charles Manson with Chris Hemsworth’s body — doubly dangerous.
Other people you’ll find at the El Royale are played by Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman, and Many Jacinto. In toto, an amazing cast in a film that will keep you guessing, ducking bullets, and hoping.
Bad Times at the El Royale, opens in theaters on October 12. You can watch the trailer, below.